Excerpts from an interview with the Chairperson of the Consultation Task Force for Reconciliation Mechanisms (CTF) Manouri Muttetuwegama on their recently released report:

View a short video with key quotes here, or below:

Q: What do you think are the most important points that people should focus on in the recently released Consultation Task Force for Reconciliation Mechanisms (CTF) report?

 A: Firstly, it’s a matter of pride to the CTF, how honestly people came and expressed their concerns to us. The people who made submissions include the directly war affected, the Muslim community, Malaiyaha Tamils or the estate Tamils who have faced untold discrimination, the aadivasis from the veddah community. The army came before us – gravely injured soldiers. They too have suffered. They are happy that they ended the war, but they have humanism too, and thoughtfulness.

For people, the sittings were an assertion of citizenship – a consciousness not just of an opportunity but also of a duty, to come forward and tell us how they saw the world and what they felt was wrong with it.

The submissions were very varied. The challenge of constitutional [reform], the distribution of power at the centre and the periphery was discussed. Then there was the representation of majority and minority communities. Disappearances are a country-wide phenomenon. An enormous number of the submissions were regarding disappearances.

After 3 Disappearance Commissions have taken place, including an All Island Disappearances Commission, it was heartbreaking to see people coming from the South, still looking for answers for those who had disappeared during the 1971 JVP insurrection.

The families of disappeared don’t say they want to be part of the forensic investigations. They don’t have the skill. But they want to be part of the structure, so that they can contribute their lived experiences. Across the board, you found this, even in respect of the court structure. The public wants the court to come to them. They don’t want them to be located in Colombo or abroad.

They pointed out that many of the affected are disabled or old, and organs like the Truth and Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) must go to them. There were a lot of rich contributions on the TJRC. They believe the truth must be known, that must be the foundation of the solution [to the national question]. This should be fed into our education system, and colour how we see and project ourselves.

Incidents such as the burning of the Jaffna library, the attack on the Dalada Maligawa, all massacres should be recorded in history books as atrocious acts that should never happen again. I think that’s very powerful. This is an opportunity to get rid of discrimination.

Q: What were some of the things people wanted in terms of reparations?

 A: It should be made compulsory that people go to the war affected areas to see the sheer poverty and deprivation 30 years of war have made, particularly the plight of war widows. The people’s demands were for a home, a means of livelihood. Another common wish was for the provision of education and jobs for children.

I was appalled at the level of the embedded discrimination that the Malaiyaha Tamils have suffered over 200 years. I had one to one consultations at the Noori Estate and saw the degree of intimidation and fear felt by the affected people. These women had been raped as of right by thugs. Their houses destroyed, their hen coops damaged, the tea leaf that they plucked taken. I take personal pride, whenever I see women stand up for the common good. They know the risks. We personally saw how women held their communities and families together, and under what difficult circumstances they continued to do so.

We have asked specifically that women be brought to the forefront of the move to progress. Not just be given a hen coop and a spinning wheel. These women belong in local councils. Their experience, courage and enterprise is based on reality, not on book learning.

The youth too have very real skills that can be harnessed. If you have been a divisional commander while still in your 20s, you have grappled with the realities of war, including strategy, getting protection, nourishment , engaging with the community you’re living in. These youth should be given a sense of achievement in terms of the needs of the world today.

Q: At the launch of the report, it was mentioned that there have been misconceptions about the CTF itself, with many of those who were approached for submissions expressing mistrust. What is your reaction to this?

A: That is a message that was spread among them. Yet, they still came and made submissions. That is no small achievement on the part of the Zonal Task Force.

The public didn’t come confidently. They were full of fear, scepticism and hesitation but they did feel they had a right to be heard, and to participate in decisions about solutions.

[There is also the lack of trust due to the operation of earlier Commissions, which didn’t address people’s needs].

In this country nothing has happened on disappearances. In the past, there was some form of compensation on the production of a death certificate issued after a disappearance. There was no acknowledgment of wrong by the state, irrespective of whether the death or disappearance was at subversive hands, such as the JVP or the paramilitary. The law said that for the death certificate to be issued it had to be proved that the death was at subversive hands.

I played a very active role in the Disappearances Commission and many of those who came before me were people who had lost sons, husbands, at the hands of state forces. That was not taken into consideration. Then you had this irony where in LTTE controlled areas they wouldn’t issue a certificate unless you said the death was at state hands. So in the past, reparation and restitution was at the cost of accountability. And this process in 2016 is the latest they have interacted with.

Nowhere did we come across downright opposition. In Kalutara, we did have a group ask why they were not invited to the consultations. Our Zonal Task Force Chairman explained that these are public consultations, and everyone could make submissions. We gave them a future date to make a submission. Even the Sinhala Ravaya came forward and said they were for reconciliation, as they know it’s the need of the country. Of course, their ideas for how this would be achieved were different.

This mistrust might also be because there is a tendency to shelve reports after giving some minimum acknowledgment.

Q: Are you worried that this report might also be shelved?

A: That is always a possibility. Other things might overtake us, I take courage in the fact that they showed the initiative to appoint us.

Q: Are you disappointed by the reaction of the state, particularly as the President and Prime Minister were not present at the launch of the report?

A: When you undergo an experience like this, it’s almost overwhelming. You’re completely in the midst of it. Not just your head, your professional training, but also your heart and soul. I do understand their absence, as they’re two heads of state. There may be many other concerns. The message we got is that the President wasn’t feeling well enough to come at 7 pm, and the next day he didn’t go to Jaffna as well. I can only be happy that he delegated it to former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga who while she isn’t a current political leader, is certainly symbolic of the values that the combined government of Maithripala are trying to project.

Q: The Office of Missing Persons Act was passed in Parliament before the CTF final report was completed. The CTF published an interim report, but it seems that none of the recommendations made with regards to the OMP were incorporated. What is your reaction to that?

A: I think it was just the timing. Our report came out just a bit too late. It was taken up at the sub-committee level. Some of the more discerning MPs picked up some of the recommendations. Any government is state-driven by nature but there is an insistence at every level of civil society engagement in all these structures, (which is encouraging).

Q: What do you think the absence of the President and Prime Minister, and the lack of funds set aside for the CTF’s operations, as highlighted in the report shows about the state’s commitment to the process?

A: The state is made of individuals, who may be uncertain and lack confidence. Some of them do have vision but in the day to day, side winds affect them. And they don’t see things clearly. The ultimate objective – reconciliation- should colour their perception of everything else. Once the people understand what the state is after, they will be behind it. The state has the authority and the funds. The state must have the motivation, as they are an elected body. If you’re going to inculcate another set of values, that must be done and give people the confidence they can abide by those values.

Q: There has also been some pushback, with some Ministers such as Justice Minister Wijedasa Rajapakse outright rejecting it. What is your reaction to that?

A: There is an inbuilt fear, particularly around accountability. The state has said that domestic accountability structures should be built which are credible to the affected. It needs to be understood why the affected are asking for international involvement. No one thinks the colour of your skin or your passport makes you superior to a local. It’s simply that Sri Lankans are so imbued by division. Accountability is based on universal criteria. Murder is murder, irrespective of who committed the murder, and who is the victim. The same is true of rape. From time immemorial, this is how we have built society.

I should say – our mandate is to listen to the people and be their voice. Our recommendations are made in light of the concerns expressed by the people. This is not just within the structure of transitional justice but this is all in the process of reconciliation, which is a much longer journey.

Q: There are some who have dismissed this report as being “NGO led”. What are your comments on that?

A: No society will survive without civil society activists among them. The daham pasal teachers, women’s organisations – how much have these volunteer organisations done in a civic sense? The best principals always acknowledge huge roles played by old boys associations and Parent Teacher Associations. NGOs are made up of people. When you say NGO you simply mean not a state authority.

Q: Do you think the CTF could have done more to advocate for this report?

A: We don’t have access to a large pool of funds. We all worked on a voluntary basis, traveling with small amounts. We did this because we attached importance to the process. There was a small window of opportunity and we wanted to make use of it. But we cannot do what the state must do.

The media of this country, state media included also did not do their part in engaging and educating the people. The bulk of the media either didn’t feel it was needed, or felt it was too incendiary to engage in.

Q: What do you think can be done in the short term?

A: We had some practical recommendations for reform of the judiciary and the administration of justice as a whole. A lot of things are possible under existing laws and regulations – such as disciplinary inquiries for instance. All state arms such as the police and army are very top down, but they are also based on an insistence of abiding by rules and discipline. So record complaints instead of intimidating those who make them. The Women’s Commission has been in the offing for 30 years – it’s time to get it going, and as a meaningful structure. Then a Minorities Commission was proposed too.

The families of the disappeared are in terrible economic straits. We should start giving them interim relief, and enable their children to go to school. Is it any wonder that boys turn to drugs and other vices when they don’t have access to education?

The incidents of violence in the North are high because they have experienced war. Imagine a person injured by the roadside, whose needs are ignored for five long years. That’s the level of bitterness.

The process of memorialisation can be begun now. A place where people can go to light lamps – it’s a way of remembering the dead, an assertion of family feeling. We all know that family is the basis of society. For the purpose of political mileage, some have labeled gravesites as LTTE war cemeteries. This doesn’t take away from the fact that this is someone’s son’s grave. If there are buildings on top of grave sites, those should be broken down. The affected people should be given a little plot of land where they can go. There could be memorial parks.

Then there are international instruments which we are signatories to but which have not yet been made part of domestic law. We are tardy already in not doing it.

You don’t climb Sri Pada in one jump. Similarly, justice consists of several incremental steps. Each step constitutes a part of that meaningful journey.

If you enjoyed this interview, you might find “Transitional Justice in Sri Lanka: Lessons so far and the long road ahead” or “Transitional Justice without Justice? A way out” enlightening reads.